Undefeated UMass has to take it to higher level
If its season were a video game, the undefeated University of Massachusetts men's basketball team (6-0) just completed level one. There's plenty of game left to conquer.
Prior to Monday's games, the combined record of the Division I teams UMass has played so far is 10-13. Beating Sacred Heart, Holy Cross and certainly American International was expected. Beating Texas Christian and New Mexico State, especially as thoroughly as they did, was impressive. Coming from down 22 to beat a pretty good Rider was a positive step. But there's a reason that UMass' 6-0 record isn't garnering much national attention yet.
Level two figures to be tougher, maybe a lot tougher.
The record of the remaining teams on the Minutemen's nonconference schedule is 30-13. The degree of difficulty is going up. That's a good thing. Playing any more Sacred Hearts and Holy Crosses wouldn't prove much. The Minutemen need to be challenged to move forward and get better.
There's a difference between playing well and being a good team. But the former is a key ingredient of the latter. The Minutemen have to sustain their recent good play for a longer stretch to be considered a good team, but UMass' start to the 2010-11 season appears to be a step in a good direction.
The biggest noticeable difference is defense. Derek Kellogg has been preaching it since he arrived. But for the first time the players seem to be embracing the idea. Their defense has led to fast-break offense and easy baskets.
In previous years, the Minutemen have won games when they've shot well. When they've been off the mark, their chances of victory have fallen off considerably. Better defense obviously gives them a chance to steal a win on a bad shooting night. There's still plenty of room for improvement, but they're clearly much better than they were.
Wednesday is a good next step. UMass has yet to win, or even play a road game. Quinnipiac should be a challenge. The Bobcats are picked to contend in the Northeast Conference. Since most higher profile teams wouldn't play a road game at Quinnipiac, the game figures to be a pretty big deal on the Hamden, Conn. campus.
It gets tougher from there. After losing to Yale, Boston College, UMass' Saturday opponent, has been much better upsetting Texas A&M and California. Central Florida and Seton Hall both come to the Mullins Center, but neither figures to be an easy game.
But for the Minutemen to continue to advance, they'll need to win a few of those.
OREGON STATE OBAMA TRIP - Oregon State made its annual trek east to play in front of President Barack Obama. OSU coach Craig Robinson is Obama's brother-in-law. Robinson scheduled a game against a Washington D.C. area school each of the past three seasons. They played George Washington the first year with the president looking on and Howard each of the last two. Oregon State is 2-1 with Obama in the crowd, including Saturday's 84-74 win over the Bison.
PLAYING 17 - The addition of Texas Christian to the Big East was certainly a football-based decision, but it will create some challenges in basketball. The following questions need to be answered:
As of right now there are 18 conference games. Teams play 12 of the 15 opponents once and the other three twice. They could simply play 13 teams once and two twice, or they could go to 16 conference games and play everyone once? That's probably the fairest answer, but fairness would likely take a back seat to TV interests, and two Syracuse-UConn games is more appealing to ESPN.
Do all 17 teams get invited to the conference tournament. Currently all 16 go, but with 17 teams a low-seeded team could potentially play five games in five days.
SPEARS SUSPENDED - Charlotte forward Shamari Spears was suspended for the second time this season, this time for an indefinite time period, landing in the catch all "violation of team rules," as he continues to run afoul of new coach Alan Major.
Spears averaged 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last year as a junior. He's averaged 17.0 points and 3.2 boards so far this year.
Charlotte has opened the season 3-4.
RIVALRY WEEK - This week's action pits several Atlantic 10 teams against their geographic rivals. In addition to UMass-Boston College (6 p.m. at the TD Garden), Saturday's slate features Rhode Island at Providence, Duquesne at Penn State and Buffalo at St. Bonaventure.
Duquesne also plays crosstown rival Pitt on Wednesday, while Saint Joseph plays at Drexel Wednesday and at Villanova Friday.
MORE BARKLEY - The new unification of CBS and TNT on NCAA Tournament coverage probably won't change the viewing experience much for college basketball fans, except for one fairly significant detail.
The outspoken former Auburn star, who has been immensely popular as a studio analyst for NBA games on TNT, will be on the cable network's desk for early round coverage of the NCAA Tournament.
FINALLY - Former UMass coach John Calipari will be coaching Kentucky with a heavy heart Tuesday. His mother Donna Calipari, 74, died after a long battle with cancer Sunday.
Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.